ARTS & CULTURE Wireless Festival - Day 3

Published on August 23rd, 2012


Brandon Loran Maxwell: Hip-Hop and Adam Smith

 Contrary to widespread misconstruction there are extensive differences between capitalism and corporatism:
Corporatism, or “crony capitalism”, is generally either the excessive corporate influence over a government or government entity, or, as we saw in fascist Italy, the excessive governmental control over a corporation. Both scenarios, though, as Benito Mussolini himself purportedly once described it, involves “the merger of state and corporate power.”
Capitalism on the other hand, promotes competitiveness, voluntary exchange, creativity, and advocates success on the basis of market demand rather than governmental favoritism. In a free market anybody is welcome to compete or even complement existing ideas or products and it is not government’s role to determine who wins or loses. This is a determination left to consumers.
So why is a distinction between these two terms important? Because without the latter, the wild success of hip-hop and its stars would never have been possible. And though the roots of spoken-word and hip-hop music can be found in African American music and can ultimately be traced to African music. The venture into the commercialization of the spoken-word was uniquely American.
This unique American venture was launched during the 1970’s with groups — or entrepreneurs — like The Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, and The Fatback Band, followed by artists like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, and KRS-One. What essentially commenced as block-party boredom had ended in the conception of a brand new art dubbed “emceeing,” subsequently compelling artists to compete.
The natural side effect of this competition was that it elevated and improved the product of hip-hop. And before long, artists weren’t just competing lyrically, but commercially for a share of hip-hop’s growing market. In 1979, Kurtis Blow became the first rapper to sign a major-label record deal. Then, in 1986, he became the first rapper to appear in a television commercial promoting a corporate brand name (Sprite). Indeed, Kurtis Blow was one of the first hip-hop artists to recognize the value of shared interests, a cornerstone of capitalism.
As the commercialized dissemination of the product of hip-hop grew, additional venture capitalists and artists in other areas of the country were born as well — each like their predecessors, tailoring hip-hop to their specific market and experiencing financial success as a result. Hip-hop, in many respects, became the new gold rush. The Westcoast birthed artists such as Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, Kid Frost, and Eazy E. While the South birthed its own share of unique artists, including The Geto Boys, Outcast, Goodie Mob, and Three 6 Mafia.
But this explosion of new artists and rap styles was only the tip of the iceberg. In 1988, hip-hop saw the creation of its first U.S. magazine, The Source, entirely dedicated to covering all things hip-hop. The magazine was founded by two radio disk jockeys and consequently led to the creation of future competitor magazines such as Murder Dog and XXL, again generating prosperity, jobs, and additional platforms for artists to increase exposure and opportunity to succeed in hip-hop’s market.
By the mid ‘90’s, hip-hop had become so successful that many artists began transitioning from behind a microphone to behind a mahogany desk in search of more entrepreneurial ventures. But one of the first to expound was Russell Simmons. Simmons not only co-founded the now legendary music label Def Jam Records in 1983, launching legendary hip-hop artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J., but he founded Def Comedy Jam, helping introduce popular comedians like Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. He also went on to found his very own clothing line.
Indeed, Russell Simmons’ embracement of free market capitalism helped create thousands of jobs across the country, while enabling a plethora of additional artists to also rise up out of poverty and embark on their own business ventures. Simmons’ protégé, Jay-Z, is one example. Jay-Z is now not only chief executive officer of Def Jam and Roc-A Fella Records, but co-owns a number of upscale sports bars, and, like Simmons, has also gone on to create his own clothing line. Then there is Chuck D, founder of
Hip-hop entrepreneurship hasn’t just been confined to the Big Apple, either. Hip-hop artist and Texas native, Chamillionaire, at age 27, is founder of the record label Chamillitary Entertainment. Louisiana native, Master P., is founder of No Limit Records, P. Miller Enterprises, and Better Black TV. And who hasn’t heard of California entrepreneur Dre. Dre?  From his signature iPod speakers to his signature headphones, Dr. Dre has undoubtedly traveled light-years from his days with World Class Wrecking Crew and NWA.  In fact, according to Forbes Magazine, Dr. Dre, Birdman, Jay-Z, and 50-Cent — all hip-hop stars — are all officially listed on the top “400 richest citizens” list.
Which begs the question: Would this kind of success have been possible in communist Cuba? Socialist Venezuela? Even Europe? Likely not. The reason hip-hop didn’t develop and evolve in these places isn’t because there was nothing to rap about, but rather because the economic systems in these countries wouldn’t have allowed hip-hop the necessary room or time to develop and evolve. Can you imagine trying to found a successful record hip-hop label or clothing company in Europe when you are required to give 40% out of every $10 you make to the government? Can you imagine trying to market a song entitled, “F**k the police!” in Venezuela where expressions considered offensive to authority are legally punishable by fine or arrest?
The truth is hip-hop owes its entire success to the free-market. The first phonograph (a predecessor to the record player) was invented in New Jersey. The first gramophone disc (a predecessor to the vinyl record) was invented in Washington D.C.  It was then Columbia Records and RCA that created the modern day turntable and vinyl record. Can you image hip-hop in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s without the existence of a turntable or vinyl record? Pro-Tools — the industry standard in studio recording — was invented in California by two college undergraduates. Can you imagine modern hip-hop without the ability to utilize drum machines and synthesizers, record vocal tracks, or mix from the privacy of a home-studio? Indeed, the tools of hip-hop are a direct result of Adam Smith’s division of labor.
It may not always be desirous to view hip-hop, or any other art form for that matter, through commercial or capitalist lenses. However, it is often the capitalist means upon which such art is predicated, facilitating millions of others to share in its enjoyment. This also isn’t to suggest that the U.S. is a perfect country — it isn’t. But of all the imperfect nations in the world — and there are a lot of them — the U.S. is still the least imperfect. A free market, in its correct form, is not designed to inhibit, but to liberate. And a free-market, in its proper form, does not have prejudices or preferences as to who benefits or who doesn’t. The market, rather, is merely a tool — and the quality and creativity of the workmanship achieved with that tool rests solely on the shoulders of the entrepreneur — nobody else — especially not the government.
Brandon Loran Maxwell is a contributing writer and political analyst at PoliticIt; a quarterly contributing editor to the urban hip-hop publication, Street Motivation Magazine; and a coordinator for Students For Liberty. You can read more of him at
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